Anger and Substance Abuse

When we come into recovery, many of us have been unable to feel true emotions for a long time. However, if there is one common thread among many addicts and alcoholics, that they can admit they truly felt throughout their use, it is anger.

Anger can come in many forms and can present itself differently in each person., We usually imagine the explosive drunk, who is always yelling or trying to fight. When we don’t identify with that, we probably think we don’t have much anger.

I always thought that I was extremely laid back and chill until I got sober and started making my 4th step inventory. I realized how angry I truly was at everyone and everything that ever stood in my way, and how I used substances, emotional manipulation, and rationalization as a fuel to either suppress or validate my anger.

Why do we use substances?

This is a broad question and one that therapists and psychologists will likely attribute to some form of our upbringing. However, for the real alcoholic and addict, the answer is that it is the only thing that quiets the anger, the fear, and the anxieties in us. The thing we use to soothe us is what ends up killing us. Usually, the only option we have is to enter an inpatient treatment center or else face dire consequences because of our fear and anger. 

Every person who uses substances is different, they come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, and use substances differently, but one thing they can agree on is that nothing soothed anger so much as their substance of choice.

Those on the outside will tell us our substance abuse stems from:

  • Coming from an abusive household
  • Coming from a well-off household
  • Coming from divorced parents
  • Coming from “over-loving” parents
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Having no money
  • Having too much money

The list can go on and on. When we come into the rooms, it doesn’t matter how rich or how poor we were, or if we played sports in high school or didn’t. What matters is that we can no longer soothe our anger and other emotions with drugs and alcohol.

So, now what do we do?

anger in sobriety

Why we feel anger

The more we work the steps, the more we realize that the only person ever really getting in our way is us. It can be shocking to learn this information about ourselves, as it is often ingrained in us to point the finger. It used to be so much easier to place blame than it was to admit our own faults.

If we truly want to live a healthy life in recovery, we have to start seeing our anger as what it is. It is a messenger that we are in some way, shape, or form, afraid. The two most common reasons we feel fear are:

  • We are going to lose something we have
  • We are not going to get something we want

When anything conflicts with our ability to feel safe in those regards, we often lash out in anger, often due to the fact that it was a defense mechanism that had worked for us in the past.

Those of us who thought we were laid back and easy going will finally begin to see the ways in which we use passive-aggressive, people pleasing, and “keeping score” behaviors as a way of expressing anger. We learn that it no longer works for us.

Those of us who explode into a rage when they are disturbed will see that it no longer works for them.

So how do we manage our anger when we finally want to stay physically, mentally, and most importantly, emotionally sober?

Managing Anger without Substances

An old-timer once told me, “You can work any of the steps that start with the number 1, regardless of where you are in your step work.” What she was so gently and lovingly trying to say, as I was furious over a failed relationship at 30 days sober (surprise), was that if I am not surrendering, meditating, and helping others, I am going to remain miserable.

So when we experience anger, anxiety, stress, fear, loneliness, depression, we have 12 steps to show us the way through. If you have called your sponsor, worked a step on it, meditated, prayed, and still feel angry, it is time to move.


  • Work with another alcoholic – If you’re new and haven’t worked your steps, then just talk. Talk it out with someone you trust. Talk with someone who has worked their steps. This will usually provide you with a different perspective, some hard truth, or someone to just listen.
  • ExerciseGet your body moving. Move a muscle, change a thought. When nothing else is working at that moment, go for a run, a walk, climb a tree, punch a pillow, whatever you need to do to move the energy around in your body. Release some of those endorphins, get a sweat going, get your heart racing in a good way.
  • Get a Hobby  – Have you ever wanted to start painting, playing an instrument, gardening, knitting, hell, birdwatching? I discovered rock climbing in sobriety, both a hobby and my favorite exercise. It moves my body, it challenges my mind, and I can do it alone or with friends. It gets me out of myself for a little while and allows me to focus on something besides my own problems.


Whichever way you experience anger, the time will come where abusing substances is no longer a viable option for quieting it. The good news is that we have a program for living that was designed specifically for those situations.